The rise in the use of different types of social media in elections has proved both advantageous for parties and worrying for those concerned about the cleanliness of elections.
Different platforms are to the fore in different countries with Facebook the most common app in much of the world. However in India and elsewhere it is WhatsApp that is in the lead. And despite new curbs on the forwarding of messages, its use is deeply concerning to those worried about the spread of fake news.
The advantage of all social media is that they can be used to disseminate information to voters. Parties use them to spread information about their policies and candidates. But they can also be used to spread false information and the end-to-end encryption of WhatsApp means it is almost impossible to know what individual users are seeing.
In India the information being spread is often fake and designed to enflame religious or caste conflict. Groups can contain up to 256 members and Time is reporting that parties are using volunteers to forward messages from group to group. In the past each message could be forwarded to 20 individuals or groups. New rules restrict this to just 5 but this appears to have done little to curb the spread of fake news.
The ownership of smart phones has almost doubled in the five years since the last election and more than four out of five have WhatsApp installed.
Time reports that political messaging is tailored to religion and caste – often easy to do simply by name – and that lax data laws mean that list brokers can offer information such as electricity bills to parties. Higher bills are likely to indicate middle class households with air conditioning.
While parties themselves are unlikely to put their name to inflammatory material, this doesn’t stop baseless claims being spread by supporters and influencers via political groups. The governing Hindu nationalist BJP is said to be in the lead in such tactics, but other parties including the opposition Congress are also using the platforms.